An Outline of Norenzayan’s ‘Big Gods’

In his book Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, Dr. Ara Norenzayan addresses two “puzzles” about human existence.  First, how were large-scale societies able to develop?  That is, how did small, tight-knit communities develop into the large and relatively anonymous societies that exist today?  Second, with all the potential flavors of supernatural agents, why are “Big Gods” a common theme dominating many religious traditions?  The concept of “Big Gods” refers to the omniscient and omnipotent higher powers that are prevalent across many major religious traditions today.

Norenzayan (2013) offers a cohesive, well-informed answer to these two seemingly separate questions.  Drawing from a large base of literature, from social psychology to cultural anthropology to behavioral economics, the central argument is that belief in “Big Gods” paved the way for small groups of people to develop into large-scale societies with powerful supernatural agents fostering the type of cooperation necessary for such groups to be successful.  As a result, successful societies of people who believed in “Big Gods” were able to dominate the cultural landscape, “winning out” over other religions.

The purpose of this post is to briefly describe eight principles that are central to Norenzayan’s (2013) new book and to complement his recent RSP interview with Thomas J. Coleman.  Dr. Norenzayan provides a broad range of supporting evidence for the following eight principles that supports his thesis (see pg. xiii):

1.     Watched people are nice people

2.     Religion is more in the situation than in the person

3.     Hell is stronger than heaven

4.     Trust people who trust God

5.     Religious actions speak louder than words

6.     Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods

7.     Big Gods for Big Groups

8.     Religious groups cooperate in order to compete


Principle One: Watched People are Nice People

The first principle suggests that people are nicer, or act in more prosocial ways, when they are being watched.  An important caveat is that people act in such prosocial ways even when they think they are being watched – such as by a watchful God.  Various studies have demonstrated that even in the mere presence of eyes, people tend to act cooperatively – dubbed as the “eye effect.”  For example, Ernest-Jones, Nettle, and Bateson (2011) found that anti-littering posters were more effective in reducing actual littering behavior if the poster included a set of eyes.  Related to God as a watchful agent, Gervais and Norenzayan (2012) found experimental evidence that, when primed with the concept of God, people responded in more socially desirable ways (see Study 3).  Thus, a concept of God as an all-seeing agent who monitors human behavior should help to foster cooperation within groups of people.  Importantly, cooperative societies are successful societies.


Principle Two: Religion is More in the Situation than in the Person

Norenzayan’s (2013) second principle is that individuals’ religiosity, or at least expression of religiosity, is largely shaped by the situation.  This principle is counter to the ways that many researchers and religious scholars tend to view religion – that is, religion as a relatively stable characteristic that individuals bring with them across situations.  However, Norenzayan provides empirical evidence that demonstrates how the influence of religion on behavior is qualified by the power of the situation.  For example, Norenzayan discusses, both in his book and in the interview, the “Sunday Effect” whereby some religious people behave in greater accord with their religious beliefs on Sundays.  Such religious behavior includes donating more money and being less likely to engage in “sinful” acts (e.g., viewing pornography).  Thus, as one’s religion becomes more salient, religious individuals are likely to align their religious beliefs with their behavior “in the moment.”


Principle Three: Hell is Stronger than Heaven

The third principle underlying Dr. Norenzayan’s argument is that Hell is stronger than heaven.  In one study, Shariff and Norenzayan (2011) found that general beliefs in God did not predict undergraduate students’ engagement in cheating behavior.  However, when belief in God was distilled into belief in a mean God (i.e., vengeful, and punishing) versus belief in a nice God (i.e., compassionate and forgiving), participants endorsing a mean-God concept were less likely to cheat relative to nice-God supporters.  Thus, there appears to be evidence that  “mean Gods make good people” (p. 44).  Having a God that people both love and fear helps motivate people to behave in desirable, prosocial, and cooperative ways.


Principle Four: Trust People Who Trust God

Since the early works of Allport and Ross (1967), researchers have been interested in the relationship between religion and attitudes toward out-groups.  The theoretical and empirical work in this area is complicated.  On the one hand, religion could foster positive attitudes toward members of out-groups.  Many religious faiths share basic tenets such as loving one’s “neighbor” and even one’s enemies, treating people of all kinds fairly and compassionately (Terry, 2007).  On the other hand, religion could foster intergroup hostility and intolerance (Silberman, 2005).  Such hostility is likely when the out-group violates the value systems of one’s religion (Whitley, 2009).  For example, atheism runs against the very grain of religious worldviews, which poses a particular threat for religious individuals.  People largely distrust atheists (Gervais, 2011), and privately and even publically reject such individuals (Edgell, Gerteis, & Hartmann, 2006).  According to this fourth principle, religion serves as one rather important marker on which to base trust.


Principle Five: Religious Actions Speak Louder than Words

The fifth principle proposes that religious behaviors “speak louder” than religious words.  This principle addresses a potential problem facing many religious groups: that some people might feign their religiousness to be part of the in-group and reap rewards in a selfish, free-rider manner.  With costly behaviors associated with a religion, however, religious hypocrites have a harder time faking their religious commitments.  Proscription of certain dietary practices and adherence to strict marital and sexual practices, for example, helps to monitor religious adherents.  As Norenzayan (2013) suggests, such strict religious behaviors keep possible free-riders at check, which ultimately helps to maintain group solidarity.


Principle Six: Unworshipped Gods are Impotent Gods

Norenzayan’s (2013) sixth principle is linked to the prior fifth principle.  Without committed followers, who demonstrate potentially costly behaviors such as sacrifices of “time, effort, and wealth” and behavioral restrictions (e.g., dietary restrictions), Gods lose the ability to attract followers (pg. 111).  Demonstrations of costly behaviors, though, give rise to powerful Gods that have the potential to draw in religious converts.  As religious behaviors “speak louder” than religious words, high levels of expressed commitment breeds powerful Gods.


Principle Seven: Big Gods for Big Groups

Studies among small-scale, hunter-gather groups demonstrate that belief in “Big Gods” is the exception rather than the rule.  Such small groups, like the ones from which modern-day societies developed, believe in Gods that rarely interfere with human affairs (Norenzayan, 2013).  As groups increase in size and social complexity, however, belief in “Big Gods,” or moralizing Gods, increases (Roes & Raymond, 2003).  Many large and industrialized societies around the world believe in Gods that are all-knowing, all-powerful, and morally-concerned.  The relationship between the size of groups and tendencies for belief in “Big Gods” supports Norenzayan’s (2013) seventh principle of “Big Gods” for “Big Groups.”


Principle Eight: Religious Groups Cooperate in Order to Compete

The last principle proposes that prosocial religions have “won out” over other types of religions throughout history.  Such religions, with “group-beneficial norms that suppress selfishness and increase social cohesion,” have come to dominate the cultural landscape today (Norenzayan, 2013, p. 147).  Evidence exists demonstrating that religions with “Big Gods” facilitate group stability and eventual longevity.  Additionally, such religions have been successful in gaining converts though multiple strategies (e.g., conquests) and have propagated large numbers of followers through reproductive successes.  It is through processes of cultural evolution that we have had a few religious groups, and religious characteristics more generally (i.e., belief in “Big Gods”), dominate across different cultures and societies.

The book Big Gods ends with a timely discussion regarding the rise of atheism, or non-religion more generally, in several industrialized societies (e.g., Sweden).  Norenzayan (2013) argues that, under certain social conditions, countries might successfully adopt worldviews that are less influenced by religions.  Such secular societies will have “climbed the ladder of religion, and then kicked it away” (p. 172).  Effective secular authorities in such nonreligious countries seem to have replaced religion as a motivator for cooperation.  In these societies, religion no longer serves as a characteristic by which to judge a person’s trustworthiness.  Indeed, recent research highlights the role that secular authorities (e.g., police, government, ect.) play in reducing distrust toward atheists (Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012; Norenzayan & Gervais, 2013).  What remains unclear is whether cultural pressures will favor both secular and religious societies equally, if religious societies will continue to dominate, or if secular societies will grow in appeal, eventually replacing “Big Gods” with “Big Secular Institutions.”


Allport, G. W., & Ross, J. M. (1967). Personal religious orientation and prejudice. Journal of personality and social psychology, 5(4), 432.

Edgell, P., Gerteis, J., & Hartmann, D. (2006). Atheists as ‘other’: Moral boundaries and cultural membership in American society. American Sociological Review71, 211-234.

Ernest-Jones, M., Nettle, D., & Bateson, M. (2011). Effects of eye images on everyday cooperative behavior: a field experiment. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(3), 172-178.

Gervais, W. M. (2011). Finding the faithless: Perceived atheist prevalence reduces anti-atheist prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 543-556.

Gervais, W. M. & Norenzayan, A. (2012). Reminders of secular authority reduce believers’ distrust of atheists. Psychological Science, doi:10.1177/0956797611429711.

Gervais, W. M., & Norenzayan, A. (2012) Like a camera in the sky? Thinking about God increases public self-awareness and socially desirable responding. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 298-302.

Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods: How religion transformed cooperation and conflict. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Norenzayan, A., & Gervais, W. M. (2013). Secular rule of law erodes believers’ political intolerance of atheists. Religion, Brain & Behavior, (ahead-of-print), 1-12.

Roes, F. L., & Raymond, M. (2003). Belief in moralizing gods. Evolution and human behavior, 24(2), 126-135.

Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Mean Gods make good people: Different views of God predict cheating behavior. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21, 85-96.

Silberman, I. (2005). Religious violence, terrorism, and peace: A meaning system analysis. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of religion and spirituality (pp. 529–549). New York: Guilford.

Terry, H. (2007). Golden rules and silver rules of humanity: Universal wisdom of civilization. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse.

Whitley, B. Jr. (2009). Religiosity and attitudes toward lesbians and gay men: A meta-analysis. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion19, 21-38.

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